When it comes to notable architecture in Texas, it would seem strange to place San Antonio on par with Houston or Dallas. As the second-largest city in the state, San Antonio seems to only mimic the kind of architectural largesse seen in those cities. There are plenty of jewel-like late modern skyscrapers and austere civic buildings by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Caudill Rowlett Scott, and Marmon Mok in the city, but these are not the kinds of projects one would mention in the same breath as Houston landmarks like Johnson/Burgee’s Pennzoil Place and Williams Tower, Renzo Piano’s sublime Menil Collection, or Fort Worth's iconic Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn. A selective itinerary of San Antonio’s past and future architectural projects reveals a steady commitment to buildings with bold, expressive forms that reference the city’s unique environment, history, and culture. Alamo City warmed up to these compelling architectural additions as it expanded during the late 1940s and early ’50s, and became a home to energy and utility companies during the 1970s and ’80s. Funded by philanthropic organizations and influxes of oil cash, many of these buildings are now hidden by giant, swooping highway overpasses, corporate plazas, and other developer-driven projects. Despite the earlier innovative and controversial projects, San Antonio remains overlooked. This will soon change. Newly appointed mayor Ronald Nirenberg has re-energized discussions about creating new housing, battling gentrification, and committing to more public art. This will certainly place a spotlight on San Antonio’s rich architectural offerings while reminding us of how these and other past projects have embodied this city’s distinctive topography, Latino heritage, and dry, arid environment. Emilio Ambasz’s Lucile Halsell Conservatory, completed in 1988 at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, is a good starting point. Located on the city’s northeast side, Ambasz’s scheme took advantage of the sunken site with a series of prismlike canopies that appear to rise out of the bermed earth like upturned shards of glass. Each canopy creates its own kind of climate and features particular plant ecologies—architecture designed, as Paul Goldberger observed in 1987, for the interaction between plants and humans. The project is notable for its combination of building, landscape, and infrastructure into a seamless whole. The Lucile Halsell Conservatory accommodated some very particular environmental and topographical conditions, and did so with a formal and technological expressiveness unlike anything that had been built in San Antonio. Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta’s San Antonio Central Library, completed in 1995, continues in this vein. Here, cubic volumes are stacked at various angles, creating a series of triangular-shaped courtyards intended to be outdoor reading rooms. Legorreta’s debt to Mexican architect Luis Barragán’s minimalist polychromy is clear. Working with the painter Mathias Goéritz, Barragán created spaces framed by walls and surfaces doused in highly saturated reds, blues, yellows, oranges, magentas, and pinks. At his Central Library, Legorreta appears to invert Barragán with a simple, playful interplay of volumes that seem to be wrought from its own color palette as well. The reddish-brown colored cubes appear gutted in some places, revealing inner planes of yellow, blue, and purple. When viewed from the air, the Central Library appears otherworldly, framing circular plazas made from grass and limestone and located on a triangular-shaped site near the geographical center of the city, as if something from another time had arrived here. That a Mexican architect was chosen for this project is important. As the seventh-largest city in the United States, San Antonio has one of the biggest Spanish-speaking populations. Over 62 percent of its residents are of Latino origin. The appeal of Legorreta’s Central Library stemmed as much from the need for more public libraries as it did from the desire to reflect the city’s heritage. Though this was the first building in San Antonio designed specifically to reflect the city’s Mexican-American heritage, there are older buildings that expressed the cultural richness so important to the city. The Alamo and the four Spanish Missions (recently designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites) all combine Spanish and Catholic influences while referring to the rituals and structures of indigenous peoples. This is to say that San Antonio’s architecture continues to find a way to embody its venerable cultural geography. It also incorporates its distinct environmental geography. San Antonio is a city hewn from mesquite-dappled hills, limestone quarries, and deep-set aquifers. Lake|Flato continues to be the standard-bearer among the city’s firms for a kind of tectonic and environmental sensitivity that is immediately recognizable for its ingenious references to these conditions. Imagine a version of John Lautner’s spacious geometric forms where large cornices made from corrugated metal peer over meticulous compositions of glass, limestone, slats, and brise-soleil made from local woods, all culminating in views that privilege the rolling, arid mesquite and persimmon landscapes of the Texas Hill Country. This would not do justice to Lake|Flato’s work, but perhaps it is as close as we can get to a kind of South Texas regionalism. Yet some of Lake|Flato’s current work points to something altogether different. Their recently completed pavilion at Confluence Park designed in collaboration with Matsys connects the joining of the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek, to nearby Mission Concepción, an 18th-century basilica. This is a highly-charged site in predominantly Spanish-speaking South San Antonio. The most visually arresting parts of Lake|Flato’s project are the concrete “petals” that reference the local flora while reminding the most architecturally astute observer of Spanish-born Mexican engineer Felix Candela’s sweeping hyperboloid structures, like Los Manantiales Restaurant (1958) in Mexico City’s Xochimilco Park, or the Chapel Lomas de Cuernavaca (also 1958) in Cuernavaca. Confluence Park is also part of the larger San Pedro Creek Cultural Park. This scheme is projected to transform a once-neglected 2.2-mile-long drainage spur into a cultural attraction with water features, public art, and areas dedicated to the preservation of local grasses and wildlife. In a nod to its aspirations, lead architect Henry R. Muñoz and others have embraced this project’s more common nickname—the “Latino High Line”—which may say more about Diller Scofidio + Renfro/Field Operation’s celebrated scheme than the actual goal of the project, which is to create a version of the Riverwalk devoid of its tourist traffic while celebrating Latino heritage. Urban designers are finding new ways to move San Antonio forward while referring to curious artifacts from the history of American cities. Architect Antonio Petrov, who teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the founder of Urban Future Lab, is one of the most outspoken voices when it comes to redevelopment in the city. He is a proponent of bringing back skyrides, which were already used during HemisFair ’68 as a means of connecting the city’s downtown with San Antonio International Airport. Petrov’s proposal, though evocative of pie-in-the-sky urban transportation schemes, is to be taken seriously. Similar proposals were actually in use at the 1932 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago as well as in Disneyland and Disney World (which were, in a sense, attempts to envision cities of the future.) Other schemes, though funded by corporate dollars and serious placemaking advocacy firms, are barely more pragmatic in their approach. A case in point is the proposed Alamo Plaza Redevelopment. Philadelphia-based Preservation Design Partnership authored one of the first master plans, a scheme that caused controversy when it called for relocating many of the businesses surrounding the Alamo and converting them to privately run cultural attractions. Current versions of the plan have done little to improve on the previous proposal. For example, the recent Alamo Comprehensive Interpretive Plan—spearheaded by St. Louis–based “placemaking” firm Peckham Guyton Albers & Viets; the heritage consulting firm Cultural Innovations; and landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand—still hinges on the creation of a pedestrian-friendly “Alamo District” designed to turn this historically charged site into an open-air museum. A previous scheme took this idea a step further by encircling the Alamo with a glass wall, as if preserving this architectural artifact in a kind of amber. There are plenty of other projects that are reenergizing the architectural scene in San Antonio. The city is in a bit of a gut-rehab frenzy, as landmarks like the Pearl and Lone Star Breweries have been renovated as pricey hotels and higher-end restaurants, all with the end goal of molding San Antonio into a destination for design-savvy millennials with money to burn, in hopes they will ditch an Airbnb in the picturesque King William District in favor of the Hotel Emma’s posh industrial-chic. It is in this milieu that Adjaye Associates’ Ruby City arrives as one of the most exciting projects to break ground in the Alamo City. This 14,000-square-foot gallery and contemporary arts center—scheduled to open later this year near the city’s burgeoning arts district—appears as a strange hybrid, part OMA Casa da Musica, part Legorreta Central Library. Adjaye’s building appears as a literal jewel, a faceted brick-red form whose speckled, punctured surfaces make it seem fleeting and otherworldly. But it is anything but that, for this building, which sits precariously on the edge of the one-acre CHRISpark in downtown San Antonio, will anchor the San Pedro Creek redevelopment scheme, and provide the Linda Pace Foundation’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary art with a bold, exciting home. Adjaye is still earning accolades for his groundbreaking National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and with Ruby City soon to be completed, this will be the most significant architectural gesture for San Antonio—one that will hopefully inspire an influx of more commissions and projects of a similar caliber. How should we look at San Antonio’s architectural legacies and gestures? It is tempting to stack them up against those in Houston or Dallas, but in doing so, we would risk ignoring how one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States is busy generating its own architectural identity. Don’t call it haphazard, however. The pace of architectural developments in San Antonio may appear slow, but like the city, its architecture is humming busily from what once was an undetectable purr to something greater. This sleepy South Texas city is anything but, and its architecture will demonstrate how this is the case.
Posts tagged with "Texas":
1 We landed in Houston two weeks before the storm. For newcomers to Texas, Hurricane Harvey provided a terrifying crash course in the geography and hydrology of the city, its micro-differences in topography and macro-differences in resources across the city’s communities. We were told that after the water receded, nothing would be the same, that the magnitude and destruction of the storm would simply be too hard to ignore. Yet less than a year later, as rebuilding continues on the verge of another hurricane season, it is hard to see how much—if anything—has changed for the better. Money was spent reconstructing homes on their original sites, and large-scale infrastructures that were designed to flood, like Buffalo Bayou Park, have performed admirably well as examples for designing resilient landscapes in Houston and elsewhere. A slew of well-intentioned policy reports were issued in the wake of Harvey, many reiterating similar proposals that preceded the storm, seemingly to little avail. The heuristic measures of the so-called 500-year event were questioned in light of a new reality in which such mega-storms will now be separated by years, not centuries. And then the city went back, it seems, to the combination of development and dread that has apparently become the new normal. 2 I came to Houston expecting to tap into a rich body of urban writing from the late 1970s to the 2000s that placed the city firmly at the center of broader attempts to theorize the contemporary metropolis. These formed part of what Joel Warren Barna described as “a long American tradition of minority reports” in which the social, political, economic, and psychological dimensions of architecture and the city were probed. Houston’s horizontal field provided an ideal environment for such speculations. For Joe Feagin, it offered the example par excellence of the “free enterprise city,” a case study of the unceasing urban transformations wrought by capitalist development unburdened by zoning. For Doug Milburn, Houston was “the last American city,” characterized by its ever-unfinished status as process rather than product. For Lars Lerup, its diffuse ecology of mega-shapes and micro-stimuli heralded the demise of the traditional city: a fluid condition of natural and artificial strata, a metastasizing field of events and affects punctuated by moments of stim and dross. At its peak, metropolitan Houston served as a radical testing ground for new ways of understanding the relentless permutations of 20th-century urbanism at large. Far from finding new extensions of these threads of writing the metropolis, probing their limits, or harnessing their potential for new speculations, instead, I encountered a city that seemed to have little nostalgia not just for its architecture, but also for its own prior theorizations. While cities like New York and Los Angeles capitalize on the major authors of their urban histories, Houston, by comparison, has largely fallen out of the center of contemporary discussions of urbanism and its possible futures. The most significant attempts to characterize Houston ultimately left a shrinking footprint on the contemporary urban scene, perhaps condemned by their avoidance of fixed definitions in relation to a metropolis endlessly in becoming. 3 Perhaps the major characteristic of Houston in the age of its most provocative theorizations was its lateness. An economy centered on petro-capital meant that its cycles of boom and bust happened a full decade out of step with urban development elsewhere in the U.S., with its peak following the spike in crude oil prices in the 1970s at the same time that the rest of the nation suffered from a deep recession. The city was similarly subject to the end of the oil boom in dramatic fashion, as plans to build the world’s tallest tower in Houston ran aground as prices crashed after 1983. The city’s authors reinforced the sense of Houston as late: for Milburn, the “last” truly American city in its combination of frenetic pace and untimely development; for Lerup, a model for what comes “after” the conventional city. Inevitably, Houston became a capital of late modernism and its manifestations. These included lapidary icons of petro-development, like the faceted, symmetrical towers of Pennzoil Place (Johnson/Burgee, 1976), along with local masterpieces like Four Allen Center (Lloyd, Morgan & Jones, 1984), which MoMA curator Arthur Drexler praised as “absolutely staggering” in its mirrored-glass effects. Houston’s later corporate development encapsulated its seamless, stylistic transition to postmodernism in buildings often designed by the same architects, like Johnson/Burgee’s RepublicBank Center of 1984, just across the street from Pennzoil Place. Houston’s theorizations provided valuable frameworks for understanding these economic and aesthetic cycles together, from the city’s boom to the period that Joel Warren Barna called the “see-through years” in homage to the hollow, abandoned development projects that littered the city’s landscape in the 1980s, begun a decade too late. 4 Houston has emerged as ground zero for what architecture and the city have become—for good or evil—in the midst of our national politics. The genuine multiculturalism of the country’s fourth-largest city—its greatest resource—offers conflicting signals with regard to architecture’s complicity with, or resistance to, the rise of xenophobia, racism, and nationalism in the U.S. This year provided welcome news of an international competition to design the country’s first official Ismaili Center, sponsored by the Aga Khan, with the hope of producing a distinguished building worthy of serving the nation’s largest community of Ismaili Muslims. Emancipation Park, established in 1872 as the first municipal park for African Americans in a segregated Houston—but long fallen into disrepair since the 1970s amid the decline of the historically underserved Third Ward—reopened last year to much fanfare following an extensive program of renovation and new construction by a team of designers led by Phil Freelon. Such initiatives are tempered by the news that Southwest Key Programs, a Texas nonprofit, plans to repurpose a warehouse near Houston’s downtown—which previously housed families displaced by Harvey—as a detention center for “tender age” immigrant children under the age of 12 who were forcibly separated from their parents by ICE. Meanwhile, the first federal contract for an immigrant detention center under the Trump administration was awarded in April 2017 to GEO Group, a private prison company, to build a $110 million, 1,000-bed facility in Conroe, a city just north of Houston. Such cruelties underscore the presence of the vast prison-industrial complex that underlies much of the financial landscape of the city’s politics, in parallel with the multinational conglomerates centered here—such as Halliburton—that have tied the city’s petrochemical industries to the construction of military detention facilities abroad. 5 What lessons can we learn from Houston today, from its dissonant combination of the hopeful and the horrifying amidst the city’s current urban transformations? How can new thinking emerge from the multiculturalism of an expanding city? Perhaps Houston’s lateness can be redeployed in its favor: While it may be behind the beat in offering responses to climate change, urban development, and cultural conflict, Houston’s apparent condition of being out-of-time can be reclaimed as a mode of resistance, a slowness in relation to contemporary politics. In this context, what can we do differently, and what must we think anew? For one, future criticism and speculation on the city will have to become more intersectional, no longer centered around a dominant—white, male—set of voices. (Look again at the list of authors on the previous page.) New ideas will have to come from beyond the domain of the academy, from the full spectrum of actors, interests, and constituencies that together represent Houston’s enviable diversity. The way forward might be indicated by the remarkable success of Project Row Houses, established in 1994 by artist Rick Lowe as a residency program for artists, architects, and writers—primarily women and people of color—to create and exhibit work in a series of restored shotgun houses in the Third Ward. The project’s model, based on a commitment to public art and an alternative model of community development—one that includes dedicated residences for young, single mothers—offers a true praxis for how cultural identity and community work can intersect in rethinking and remaking the city. Another lesson in joint urban practice can be found in the recently announced initiative by the University of Houston and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to create a partnership focused on Latino and Latin American art and culture. In seeking to connect students to the culture and heritage of Latino communities that make up some 43 percent of the urban population, this initiative suggests how architecture and design can respond more fully to a deeply multicultural city. Such examples offer the hope of a new Houston urbanism to come, one that expands the range of those who can participate in interpreting its transformations and reclaiming its prior theorizations toward new, untimely, and more humane futures.
As I drive down into the future lakebed, the terrain on either side of the gravel road becomes haggard and unkempt. Signs of the area’s past as farm and ranchland are evident, but shrubs and gnarled trees have grown high to create a deserted, post-apocalyptic landscape. This is the future site of Lower Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir, a 16,600-acre lake soon to be constructed in rural Fannin County that will provide water to the North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD), serving Dallas suburbs in Collin, Dallas, Kaufman, Rockwall, and Hunt Counties. This lake recently received its permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, making it the first major reservoir in Texas since Lake Gilmer was constructed in 1999. Reservoirs provide the majority of Texas’s drinking water. Texas has been building reservoirs since 1893 (Lake Austin), with the majority created in the 1940s through the 1960s. There are currently 188 in the state, according to the Texas State Historical Association. In the Dallas area, with the limited availability of river water and an aquifer too low to be practical on a large scale, reservoirs have been the main strategy for providing water to a growing region. During a recent visit to Bonham, the Fannin County seat and nearest town to the proposed lake, a passive acceptance of the forthcoming project was evident among a number of residents. There are those who oppose it, most notably the landowners whose land will soon be flooded. However, in rural unincorporated areas, there are few options for organized resistance when a powerful water authority decides to plant a reservoir in your backyard. Yet the impact on Fannin County extends beyond the boundaries of the lake itself. The NTMWD is required to mitigate the habitat destruction caused by the new reservoir by creating new habitat nearby. Thus, an area slightly larger than the reservoir has been purchased to this end. In total, 33,441 acres of private land has been appropriated from local landowners (5 percent of Fannin County). This situation in Fannin County magnifies a common but overlooked tension in the field. Despite the extreme impact, large-scale water infrastructure is strangely absent from the architectural conversation. Architects employ water conservation and collect stormwater at a building scale, but, like most, take the availability of water for granted. They know their project simply has to tap into the existing water main in the adjacent street. Yet the construction of buildings is an extremely water-intensive process, regardless of the water-efficient fixtures they specify. A significant amount of water is used during the production of concrete, with yet more added at the building site. To complete the curing process, concrete requires approximately one pound of water for every three pounds of concrete. Unfortunately, little data is available for water use in construction sites in the U.S. Furthermore, under current infrastructural constraints, cities have no capacity to provide the resources for their own sustenance. Most cities do not generate power or harvest their drinking water within their boundaries. In light of this, cities can be seen as having a parasitic relationship with their surrounding rural areas. The ugly and unpleasant realities of power generation are located far out of sight of the cities themselves, and the inundation of private land for drinking water is undertaken in rural areas because, after all, they have plenty of land. This leeching of resources from the countryside enables cities to exist, but it is a reality that the design profession should begin to address. In February 2018, the residents of the NTMWD used an average of just under 3,000 gallons per capita. A few months earlier, in August 2017, the water use was approximately 6,200 gallons per capita, which equates to 200 gallons per day per resident. Watering St. Augustine lawns accounts for much of that summertime use in this suburban water district. While the NTMWD champions the new reservoir as critical to its supplies, it will only meet the demand for the year 2022 through 2040, a span of 18 years. At that point, additional reservoirs will be required. While Texas is a large state, land is still a finite resource, and new prime reservoir locations are very limited. Climate change also poses problems for the continued reliance on reservoirs. Record-breaking drought in 2011 meant nearly all the reservoirs were significantly below capacity, with some municipalities enacting mandatory water conservation measures. Future droughts will be harsher, posing severe challenges to water provision. As architects strive to address the challenges of building in our current environment, a knowledge of the complex and connected relationship of water to development and construction is important. Architects and planners, water officials, and more will need to be creative in solving the complex problem of providing water to future populations. While American cities have not yet had to deal with the scale of catastrophic water shortage that occurred in Cape Town, South Africa, it should give us all pause as a similar situation in North Texas is quite possible.
This past week, The Architect’s Newspaper has published a series of essays from our recently released July/August 2018 issue, focused exclusively on Texas. The collection has been guest-edited by El Paso-based AGENCY and has examined the forces that have shaped the U.S.-Mexico border, and how that border continues to affect the lives of people on both sides. The following essays offer perspectives on property, landscape, material, and infrastructure that shape the U.S.-Mexico border. The authors illuminate critical spatial practices that destabilize assumptions about the border and the seeming simplicity of its binary divisions and exclusionary logics. These perspectives argue instead for constructive transgressions of this destructive border myth as it is being implemented to advance political agendas. These articles are offered as origin stories of a land, a people, and a space whose origins are routinely questioned and defied, entrenched and overcome. How architecture is aiding detention at the U.S.-Mexico border In the first part of this series, AGENCY documents how architecture and design aid detention across the U.S.-Mexico border, and how immigrants seeking asylum are turned away before they can enter the U.S. Photos by Iwan Baan accompany the text. The monorail that could have united El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Mexico The Juárez-El Paso border area has always been tightly knit, and in the 1960s a hanging monorail could have united the two cities. Now that there's a renewed focus on the border as an impenetrable barrier, what can we learn from a time when the border was meant to be crossed? How the Rio Grande came to separate the U.S. and Mexico The Rio Grande has served as a dividing line between the U.S. and Mexico, but as the river shifts course, so too do the fortunes of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, leading to a host of water management issues in both cities. As remittances flow to Mexico, a new architectural style blooms The flow of money from the United States to Mexico has encouraged a new style of architecture in Mexico, as residents have used that money to design and construct new housing typologies by hand. How the Rio Grande creates geographical—and legal—loopholes The continual deposition and erosion of soil by the Rio Grande further muddles the U.S.'s border with Mexico, as the river has historically been used as a dividing line between the two countries. Prada Marfa’s immigrant architecture is more relevant than ever Prada Marfa, conceived during the roiling post-9/11 political era, is an appropriation of native Mexican materials and techniques that satirizes American consumerism; the building is now more relevant to the political conversation than ever, argues one of its designers.
Like many of the most exciting young firms currently practicing across the United States, Schaum/Shieh, based in New York City and Houston, owes its existence to the financial crisis of 2008. In the immediate aftermath of the meltdown, Schaum/Shieh principals Rosalyne Shieh and Troy Schaum found themselves working as collaborators on speculative urban projects while attending graduate school at Princeton, where the pair shared studio space. Attempting to figure out “what happens when you ask a question no one tells you to ask,” according to Shieh, the pair was driven toward the “protected space” of academic work by prestigious fellowships—Shieh at Taubman College in Michigan and Schaum at Rice University in Texas—in an effort to bolster professional experiences that included stints at Abalos & Herreros and OMA, respectively. After becoming licensed and spending their fellowship years incubating their practice, the pair fortuitously landed a spot exhibiting a project in the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, a platform that propelled their budding firm into the realm of client-based work. In the intervening years, a mix of bespoke design and meditative restoration work for institutional clients like the Donald Judd and Chinati Foundations—as well as commercially driven work for private clients—has kept the firm busy exploring multiple facets of architectural production. Driven by an intense curiosity and interest in the blend between high and low architectural culture, Schaum/Shieh continues to build its ever-elusive catalogue of offbeat work. Over time, the two architects have learned when to hold back. Schaum explains: “Restraint is [a] remarkable lesson for young architects to learn. [You realize] there are moments when we need to step back and not do certain things.” White Oak Music Hall One of the firm’s largest commissions to date is the White Oak Music Hall in Houston along Little White Oak Bayou north of the city’s downtown. Completed in phases between 2016 and 2017, the multistage music and event center features a pair of indoor stages that can house a combined 1,400 spectators, and a 3,800 capacity outdoor amphitheater built into the natural topography along the Bayou. The bar-shaped clapboard and wood plank-wrapped structure spans across the edge of its urban infill site and features balconies and open-roof decks that face toward the Houston skyline. An on-site industrial metal warehouse and steel tower were recently converted into a small music venue and bar as well. Transart The architects recently completed work on the 3,000-square-foot Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology in Houston’s museum district, a complex that seeks to treat the “white box gallery as a problem” by introducing softness of form and visual instability to the otherwise staid building type. The private arts foundation and gallery is spread out across two structures, including a new three-story edifice crafted out of super-size stucco panels. The building’s stucco walls feature clipped corners and upturned edges that reveal triangular windows designed to bring direct light into the galleries and support spaces. The new structure is buttressed by a 1,200-square-foot studio and apartment located within an existing structure that was re-skinned with cement panels and a standing seam roof. Judd Foundation The multifaceted firm has worked for several years on collaborative projects involving the restoration and rehabilitation of several of Donald Judd’s studios and installed spaces in Marfa. What started as an effort to “responsibly finish and maintain” Judd’s architecture office quickly morphed into a wide-ranging collection of restorations and long-term planning efforts led by the Judd Foundation for more than a dozen buildings in the town. Over time, the high-profile, low-visibility restoration and conservation-focused work became an “invisible exercise that led to a conversation you can't ever see,” according to Schaum. The architects sought to create a “Texas model” for restoration that was flexible enough to include off-the-shelf components as well as innovative solutions that stand apart from prototypical, white-glove restoration work. 420 20th Street Always eager to take on diverse projects, the firm has also tried its hand at updating the ubiquitous strip mall. Their project at 420 20th Street in Houston aims for an understated refresh by converting an abandoned 1950s washateria into a collection of bespoke storefronts. For Shieh and Schaum—both children of American suburban landscapes—the discarded 5,200-square-foot laundromat represents a type of “common” architecture that many architects are too often happy to avoid. Instead, Shieh views strip malls like this one as “a type that can be transformed, developed, and worked with,” part of an amorphous urbanism that runs counter to “traditional urban legibility,” but in a good way. For the project, the team opted to replace the building’s storefronts with new components, including custom steel and wooden door handle elements. New planters were also embedded in each of the building’s exterior columns, while the structure’s historic brick detailing was brought out with new paint and a mural. Inside, each of the serially arranged shops is separated from the others by expanses of clear factory windows that allow views through the entire structure.
This article is the last in a series that originally appeared in AN’s July/August 2018 issue which focuses exclusively on Texas and was guest edited by AGENCY. The essays examine architecture and practice across the southern border of the United States. Political Context Prada Marfa is a building born out of the political tensions arising in post-9/11 America, in which Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mexico become scapegoats. In 2003, a United States-led coalition invaded Iraq, beginning an eight-year war, and in 2005, Duncan Hunter, who at the time was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called for the construction of a wall along the entire border between the U.S. and Mexico. This led to his amendment to the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, which called for 698 miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. This paved the way for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which President George W. Bush signed to “help protect the American people” from several purported threats, but primarily terrorism, which was the major focus of the era’s political rhetoric. Borderlands Architecture Prada Marfa is constructed out of traditional adobe bricks which have long been used in the region but are frequently perceived as an inferior material despite their ecological and climatological responsiveness. Adobe bricks provide the foundation for the oldest extant buildings in the region, as well as many of the area’s most important cultural and heritage sites, including artist Donald Judd’s own Block compound in Marfa. Directly referencing Judd and the military building traditions he emulated, the adobe bricks are intentionally set in a cement-based mortar. Judd recognized that this was the technique employed in the construction of barracks, hangars, and forts in the region, and Prada Marfa is constructed to reflect this mistrust of local traditions of the militaristic architecture that secures the border displays. Adobe brick was validated as a construction material, but not adobe mortar, which is more likely to be used on the humble houses of Mexicans and Mexican Americans on both sides of the contemporary border. Material Lineage While the adobe walls of Prada Marfa are indigenous, they are not perceived to be native to the United States, as the tradition is a spoil of the Mexican-American war. The form of the building recalls a West Texas vernacular, which is influenced by the melding of many cultures at the border. The artists Elmgreen and Dragset are from Denmark and Norway, respectively. The details of the interior come from Italy. The specifications for the shelves, the typography (a variation of a type popular with American engravers and typefounders in the last third of the 19th century), the color of paint for the interior walls, the lighting, and the carpet were directly sampled from Prada’s own architectural details for retail outlets in Milan. The inspiration for the facade is sampled from German photographer Andreas Gursky’s photograph Prada II. The building is sprayed with an elastomeric white latex coating to reflect the powerful rays of the sun and withstand the extreme expansion and contraction of the building’s structure in the fluctuating desert temperatures. Xenophobia and Cultural Assimilation Prada Marfa was a very new kind of work. Unlike the reserved and apolitical work of Judd—who in Marfa had already laid claim to art and what it should be—Prada Marfa blurs the boundaries between architecture, art, politics, and culture. The very same night that Prada Marfa opened, xenophobes attacked the work, stealing the shoes and purses, destroying the building’s facade, and spray painting “dum” [sic] and “dumb” on the inside and outside of the building. Prada Marfa represented a very new kind of artistic expression that was unfamiliar in the region and challenged conservative artistic sensibilities, calling into question the juxtapositions between wealth and poverty, the U.S. and Mexico, anglo and Mejicano, of the region that the building highlighted. Since Prada Marfa’s construction, it has had to evolve to survive in the political and environmental climate of both art and the borderlands. Since the first attack on the building, it has been vandalized several times—the glass windows were shoddily replaced by scratch-resistant and shatterproof acrylic to withstand bullets and the continual “peeling out” of cars in front of the building, which kicks up rocks and debris onto the facade. The fabric awnings had to be replaced due to smokers continually burning holes in the cloth with their cigarettes, and the font size of PRADA was increased to almost match the size of the letters on the black metal signs above, suggesting that the delicate typography on the original awnings may not have been good enough in a state where “everything is bigger.” Many other forms of vandalism have taken place. Men’s underwear was shoved into the drain pipes, causing the roof to flood and inundate the interior, which required the shelving to be rebuilt and repainted and the carpet to be replaced. Most dramatically, an artist by the name of Joe Magnano was found guilty of two counts of misdemeanor criminal mischief and required to pay Ballroom Marfa, the caretaker of Prada Marfa, $10,700 and a $1,000 fine for attempting to paint the building blue and pasting TOMS, the logo of a shoe brand founded by Texan Blake Mycoskie, on it, perhaps in an inadvertent attempt to make a structure perceived to be “not from around these parts” more Texan. The vandals who destroyed the building after it first opened, however, have never come forward, although it has been suggested that the borderland surveillance systems used to monitor immigrants traveling in the desert may be able to reveal these criminals. Hajj Prada Marfa has become a pilgrimage site where those making the journey to visit the building have left mementos as part of what has become a kind of hajj to this art Mecca. The various offerings at the Prada Marfa site have included visitors leaving one used shoe, placed around the building or atop the fencing surrounding the building. Perhaps this references the single shoe found in the faux shoe shelves of the store, or maybe the worn-out shoes of immigrants who journey by foot to the U.S. from Mexico until the soles of their shoes wear away, before being picked up in the landscape surrounding Prada Marfa. Not unlike the Jewish mitzvah where visitors to a grave leave small pebbles on a gravestone, visitors have also left small rocks, holding down a piece of paper with a name, message, or a business card, on the narrow ledge that surrounds Prada Marfa. This act reminds us of the harsh reality of a landscape where countless die in the desert, just as the wall has pushed people to greater extremes on their journey north. The shoes and the pebbles left by art pilgrims were systematically removed as they were also perceived as a form of vandalism—a crime, rather than a new tradition—and a fence was constructed around the building made of welded wire mesh, reminiscent of the transformation of the U.S.–Mexico border from a barbed wire fence to stretches of welded steel. The construction of the fence surrounding Prada Marfa, however, has prompted another tradition of offering at the site. While called Prada Marfa, the building is technically just outside the small town of Valentine, Texas. Despite a population of 217, the town is inundated with over 1,000 people on Valentine’s Day, as well as hundreds of Valentine’s Day cards that are sent through the local post office, which has been known as a “love station.” Today, “love locks,” padlocks used by sweethearts to symbolize their love, are attached to the new fence surrounding Prada Marfa, and the keys are thrown away. Perhaps this, too, symbolizes the time we live in, mired in a national struggle between the fences that divide and the love that could bring us together in the borderlands. Ronald Rael holds the Eva Li Memorial Chair in Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and his architectural practice, Rael San Fratello, was the designer of Prada Marfa. He is the author of Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary.
New York-based studio Agency–Agency recently completed a new, light-filled headquarters for Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) Lone Star in downtown Houston. Designed alongside local firm Method Architecture, the 20,000-square-foot structure increases the visibility of the national nonprofit and connects it with its core demographic of volunteers and lower-income families nearby. Featuring a pentagonal plan, the muted, beige-gray building sits three stories tall and includes massive windows that cut through the facade, unveiling activity within. A full-height, yellow-walled atrium invites visitors into the facility while pops of coral and teal are painted throughout, adding to the interior’s playful atmosphere. “An old idea of nonprofits is to lean heavily toward modesty and frugality to show philanthropists a greater sense of need,” Pierce Bush, CEO of BBBS Lone Star, told Texas Architect. “Here, the decision was made to go bold.” BBBS Lone Star services Greater Houston, Dallas, and Tarrant counties, as well as West Central Texas. Agency–Agency wanted the design to speak to the organization’s leadership and influence across half of the state. Creating dynamic views in and out of the facility was an important priority for the project. The interior program houses community spaces on the first floor, offices on the second, and a flexible event and activity space on the third along with an outdoor terrace. “The scale of the building responds to the need to be visible in that part of the city,” said Tei Carpenter, director of Agency–Agency, to Texas Architect. “It’s meant to be seen at the speed of traffic.”
Here are some things for sale at Buc-ee’s: dozens of varieties of beef jerky, jalapeño pepper jelly, fudge, yoga pants, gun cases, faux rusticated wood accoutrements, faux rhinestone belts, cowboy art, meaty kolaches, deer corn, American Hunter game feeders, artisan soap, camo tote bags, sports memorabilia, gummy worms, brisket, BBQ smokers, and just about anything else one could possibly want emblazoned with the portrait of the store's mascot, a cartoon beaver. For the uninitiated, Buc-ee’s is a Texas gas station chain and so much more. Started in Lake Jackson, outside of Houston, by Arch “Beaver” Aplin III in 1982, the chain now has 33 locations throughout the eastern half of the state. Like a watering hole on the suburban savannah, these mega-size mini-marts serve as a social condenser: They provide a place where the diverse populations of Texas can graze together. To generate anticipation, Buc-ee’s maintains billboards hundreds of miles out from its stores, inducing in travelers’ minds a yearning for a bathroom break and a bag of “Buc-ee's nug-ees” before they know their desires themselves. The ads are meme-worthy and infectious: “OMG! It’s a beaver! LOL!,” “My overbite is sexy,” “The Top Two Reasons to Stop at Buc-ee's: Number 1 and Number 2,” and “Only 262 miles to Buc-ee’s. You can hold it.” They lodge in the brain much like the chain's corn nug-ees stick in one's teeth. Buc-ee’s are big. Full-size versions of the store sport over 100 gas pumps. They are truck stop–scaled attractions with no trucks, as big rigs are not allowed at the chain. The number of pumps makes for an absurdly long shade canopy, as if the plan of a normal gas station was enlarged in one dimension prior to construction. It is a gesture of logistical horizontality, and the form embodies the engulfing flatness of a state that takes 12 hours to cross diagonally. The structure captures the state’s vitality and artificiality; architecturally, Buc-ee's inspires the same synthetic blend of patriotism and awkwardness as a stretch Hummer. Some locations include car washes, built with the same strip mall vocabulary as the main building. At the recently opened Buc-ee’s in Katy, the conveyor belt apparatus is 255 feet long and officially set the Guinness World Record for the world's longest car wash. But there’s an ecological reason for this. According to Aplin, quoted in the Houston Chronicle, the car wash's length and the number of brushes involved means that it uses less water than smaller operations: “You're not trying to do it in 50 feet. You have more time…It's very eco-friendly." Inside, the store’s most valuable amenity is its clean restrooms. The bathrooms are immaculately maintained and generously sized, with fully enclosed toilet rooms that are finished, as Kevin Bacon’s character from Tremors might describe it, in tile that goes “all the way up.” After heeding the call of nature, one is immersed in the overwhelming expanse of the retail floor. It feels like a to-go Cracker Barrel on steroids with fewer rocking chairs and more truck nuts. As in a casino, disorientation and interiority dominate the senses. Typically, drink coolers and snack racks are to the right, prepared and fresh food kiosks are in the middle, and hard and soft goods are to the left. Flagship locations are larger than grocery stores, although beyond jams and spices, the stores don’t really sell raw food materials. Square beige tile covers the floors and walls everywhere. Above, the 2x4 pattern of fluorescent lights is a relentless perspectival companion, the grid against which the goods are seen and reflected on every individually packaged unit of merchandise. Buc-ee's is big business for its owners and a decent job for its employees. A sign advertises wages for cashiers starting at $14/hour, nearly the $15/hour rate recommended by some progressives as a baseline minimum wage. Municipalities, knowing the chain's popularity, shell out to land new locations. This year, a Buc-ee's will open in Denton, where the city agreed to $8.1 million in sales tax reimbursements in exchange for the new 38-acre development. The appeal is legitimate, as each location attracts scores of motorists and generates up to 200 jobs, all contributing to the state's strong economy. Buc-ee's bustles at all hours in its performance of consumer culture. Here, people from all walks of life, about to partake in all kinds of activities, arrive in hot pursuit of sustenance and supplies. Much as Buc-ee’s creates its own network of road trip destinations today, in the early 1970s the Truckstop Network, a project by the briefly Houston-based Ant Farm, reimagined the American freeway system as an infrastructure for “media nomads.” They proposed a set of support modules that would provide essential services for travelers, as well as communication services to allow for the broadcast of original content directly to the public. But now that unlimited streaming is the norm, the mediatized aspect of Ant Farm's dream feels outdated. What endures are the creature comforts that still spur us to pull over and join the masses in search of junk food and cheap fountain drinks. In the deserted expanses of roadside America, it is a welcome surprise to suddenly be lost in an air-conditioned crowd as it circulates around a Buc-ee's interior, swirled along by the currents of individual appetites, only to quickly return to one's vehicle, as there are no places to sit down, inside or outside. This dance is overseen by the gaze of the eponymous beaver, a ubiquitous character in the store that oscillates between appearing cheery and creepy, depending on one's mood. The creature's unblinking eyes peer out from every piece of branded product, its buck-toothed mouth frozen open. If able to speak, what would Buc-ee say? Despite the store's appearance of American monoculture, culinary diversity sneaks in; the New Braunfels location offers 37 varieties of jerky, including “bohemian garlic, cherry maple, and ghost pepper,” according to NPR. Like a ten-year high school reunion or an acid trip, Buc-ee's triggers many surprises about one's self and the world. As a lovesick essayist wisely observed, “You go to Buc-ee's for the same reason you break up with someone: to pursue possibility, that narcotic promise of more.” In Content, OMA described a “social condenser” as a "programmatic layering upon vacant terrain to encourage dynamic coexistence of activities and to generate, through their interference, unprecedented events." This matches the chaos of Buc-ee’s. It's not a socialist Narkomfin, where workers might promenade in productive collision after their collective labors, but a capitalist terrain where citizens can stock up on sugared nuts, psychedelic beaver socks, and signs that read, “The most important kitchen utensil is the corkscrew.” Buc-ee's may not be the social condenser we need, but it's the social condenser that shows us everything we didn't know we always wanted.
This article is the fifth in a series that originally appeared in AN’s July/August 2018 issue which focuses exclusively on Texas and was guest edited by AGENCY. The rest of the essays will be released in the coming days and examine architecture and practice across the southern border of the United States. The 1896 Heavyweight Championship in boxing was staged in an improbable location: on a sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande River. Robert James Fitzsimmons knocked out Peter Maher in a fight that lasted 95 seconds and took advantage of the ambiguous administrative and enforcement conditions of the river boundary. Boxing, you see, was illegal in both Texas and Mexico at the time. After a series of territorial shifts and classic Texas wrangling, the fight promoters decided to stage the fight some 16 hours journey south of El Paso in a remote section of the river away from easy enforcement by Mexican police. In a fight attended by 182 people enclosed inside a canvas tarp fence, Fitzsimmons led with his left, and a minute-and-a-half later, “Maher measured his length on the floor.” And it is indeed this figurative floor, this once and future bed of the river where the fight was held, that was both the legal loophole that allowed this spectacle to take place as well as the ongoing challenge to bright-line models of international territoriality. In the contemporary media environment where border walls and military buildup occupy our imagination of the boundary, it is easy to forget that well over half of the length of this border is defined by the fluvial boundary of the Rio Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande). Article V of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo reads, “The Boundary line between the two Republics shall commence in the Gulf of Mexico, three leagues from land, opposite the mouth of the Rio Grande…from thence, up the middle of that river, following the deepest channel…to the point where it strikes the Southern Boundary of New Mexico.” Yet, as this and the dozens of subsequent treaties, commissions, and surveys attest, this very definition of the boundary is subject to the fundamentally dynamic and unsettled nature of the Rio Grande River. In general, water law recognizes two categories of boundary change brought about by the changing forces of water: one gradual and slow, the other abrupt and discontinuous. The first, known as accretion, is defined as the gradual and imperceptible deposition of material along the bank of a body of water and the lands formed by this process. Its inverse, reliction, is the gradual uncovering of land caused by the recession of a body of water. In both of these cases, the morphology of ownership maps onto the morphology of the river—with alluvial accretions or relictions belonging to the owners of the coterminous land. The second category, known as avulsion, is defined as the sudden and rapid change of a channel of a boundary stream. Such wholesale shifts in the river channel are quite common in rivers such as the Rio Grande that experience wide fluctuations in flow across the year, where oxbows and meanders are cut off regularly during the spring freshets. In these cases, the changes brought about by such large shifts do not easily map onto adjacent property and ownership structures, resulting in the potential for pockets of alternating ownership—and in the case of the Rio Grande, of citizenship—existing across the river boundary. At the heart of these attempts to tame the river through surveyed lines and legal words is a fundamental irreconcilability of language and landscape—an irretrievable misfit between the map and the territory. Writing in his 1857 Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, surveyor general Major William H. Emory highlights this gap when he explains: “The [river] does not always run in the same bed; whenever it changes, the boundary must change, and no survey nor anything else can keep it from changing. A survey of that river, therefore, as it fixes nothing, determines nothing, is of minor importance. It forms of itself a more apparent and enduring monument of the boundary than any that can be made by art.” Against Major Emory’s advice, the International Water and Boundary Commission set out in the early 20th century to “rectify”—or straighten—the natural meanders of the Rio Grande in a futile attempt to make the world out there approximate the bright-lines of boundary law. These so-called Banco Conventions, named after the riverbanks cut away by river avulsion, carried the additional political dimension of citizenship: where those who opted to remain on their original land could either preserve title and rights of citizenship of the county to which said banco formerly belonged or acquire the nationality of the country to which the territory would belong in the future. Yet the engineer’s channelization of the Rio Grande could no more make the river act like the surveyor's line on the plat than it could erase the fundamentally dynamic and relational qualities of being and belonging that mark this border region. Language and law, boundaries and territory, citizenship and rights—these are only a few of the fundamental correspondences that the fluvial geomorphology of the Rio Grande River both narrate and problematize. Jesse Vogler is an artist and architect based in Tbilisi and St. Louis and is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Washington University in St. Louis.
Houston is a city that revels in the intersection of event and space—it certainly has an abundance of both. Adjacent to one of Houston’s meandering and often overflowing bayous in what was once an empty lot turned parking lot, Sideout Volleybar responds to the city's social pressures and urban conditions. This volleyball social club opened in the Northside neighborhood in June 2017 and combines casual sports, bright lights, and beer. AN contributor Jack Murphy and I decided to do a bit of participant observation on a recent Wednesday and headed over for burgers and beer. Sideout has three courts lined on two sides by a covered observation porch along with a bar house, a bean bag toss court, a dog area, and a food truck parked outside. “It’s like an athletic Ice House,” Jack observed, referring to the open-air beer joints that have long dotted the city. The comparison to the classic Houston outdoor bar is apt in that everything feels so provisional, as if the wood-framed decks could quickly be dismantled and the carpet of sand rolled up if business got too slow. The bar itself is not much more than a converted bungalow with a slab of wood in the space once occupied by the living room sofa. There was an effort to cover every surface with some choice of bright yellow, millennial pink, or a color I can only describe as greenish. The lighting is simply the parking lot pylons poking out of the sandy courts, which were installed on top of the parking lot surface, like a Houston version of “Sous les pavés, la plage!” This particular evening was both a trivia night and a league night, so the jarring patter of trivia questions layered over the chatter of various teams on the courts, all atop the soundtrack of greatest hits from the early 1990’s. The music of 311 was on heavy rotation. It was a ball. Sideout is a bar for beach volleyball and this seemed simple enough. The venue calls itself a “volleybar,” but the place is alive with activity: What we discovered was a veritable volleybar ball. “I think we are in the 1 percent of people not wearing an obnoxious league shirt,” Jack comments. The team players wear generic loose-fitting league T-shirts, distributed by Houston Sports & Social Club. For expediency, the graphics on every shirt are the same, so the 20-odd teams are differentiated by a range of colors that evokes a middle-school summer day camp. What is illustrative to the architect in this situation is that what is happening is really an event-based urban choreography. Houston is a city of unparalleled diversity with very few circumstances that allow for the public to appear together—but here, people come in droves. By our rough count, there must have been nearly 200 players at any given time in the complex: trivia sharks, volleyball players, dog-walkers, and even a few just plain barflies. I can’t help but imagine the league T-shirts as some type of Situationist uniform à la Constant’s Homo Ludens. Will Thomas, one of Sideout’s owners and a local musician, cited many of the Tex-Mex establishments of his youth and their “organic informality” as his inspiration for the place. Thomas is a partner in W2 Development, a company responsible for many of the recent commercial developments in the neighborhood. Nearby, there is a new metro light rail stop, the White Oak Music Hall, designed by Schaum/Shieh, a dramatic bridge over a river (a bayou, upscaled), and a hike and bike trail in the works, all set in a loose assemblage that doesn’t quite amount to an urban system until you see it activated through its events. Whether it’s an outdoor concert, a cinema screening, or, of course, league night at the Volleybar, each time you visit, you might find yourself in what feels like a different city. If you don’t mind the sartorial constraints of the league T-shirt and would enjoy the feeling of standing at the center of a sociality you can’t quite perceive the edges of, then come over to the Sideout Volleybar. If bumping, setting, or spiking isn’t your thing, then at least you will find a unique place to imbibe and watch the sun set against the Houston skyline.
This article is the third in a series that originally appeared in AN's July/August 2018 issue which focuses exclusively on Texas and was guest edited by AGENCY. The rest of the essays will be released in the coming days and examine architecture and practice across the southern border of the United States. In discussions of the U.S.-Mexico border region, what often gets lost is a full exploration of the geographic and social networks produced by the lives that span it. Taking in the meaning of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, the largest migration corridor in the world, requires an understanding of both ends of the journey as well as what lies in between. One way to do this is to follow the money—in this case, migrant dollars earned in various locations throughout the U.S. that are channeled back to households in Mexico. The economic term for this capital flow is remittances, typically used by political scientists, demographers, and NGOs that investigate how and if remittances alleviate poverty in receiving regions. I follow this capital flow to its material conclusions as manifested in migrant hometowns. The “remittance house,” a term I use to describe houses built in Mexico by workers performing unskilled or semiskilled wage labor (or migrants “from below”) in the U.S., reveals Mexican pueblos as distant hinterlands of American cities and as critical nodes in our understanding of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands at large. I first became interested in the remittance house through the stories of my co-workers, Mexican male migrants who lived and worked in Berkeley, California, while investing a portion of their earnings into new homes in Guanajuato, Mexico. The Central Bajío state of Guanajuato and its neighboring state of Jalisco have historically high rates of both emigration and remitting. Economist Paul S. Taylor documented migrants using dollars to build or remodel homes in Jalisco as early as the 1930s. Jalisco is an epicenter of remittance construction that includes homes as well as communally funded public projects like rodeo arenas and cultural centers. Today, Mexico ranks as the world’s fourth-largest remittance economy after China, India, and the Philippines, receiving approximately $20 billion dollars annually, and new construction financed by remittance dollars is evident across Mexico’s 32 states. Formally and materially, the remittance house has become a source of curiosity both for people who live in Mexican towns as well as for those peering in from afar. This has to do with the houses' heavily articulated facades that present a dizzying array of representational strategies. Fluted columns, zigzagging concrete cornices, and repetitive pediment-shaped window frames grace facades topped with false fronts that represent gable roofs or brick battlements. These eclectic arrangements clash with the built fabric of small towns composed of adobe or fired brick buildings with teja tiled roofs—towns once marked by uniformity and homogeneity. In the remittance house, architectural style carries great symbolic weight, as design ideas are pulled from various corners of migrant experiences and journeys. Homes with recessed yards, metal fences, carports, and picture windows are referred to as “estilo Californiano,” or “California style.” Yet they are hybrid forms, where the image of wooden stick-frame construction is translated into local masonry traditions, supported by migrants’ desire to have homes “built to last.” New migrant homes have created a maelstrom of commentary throughout small towns. A local architect in Jalisco described the migrant building style as “garigoleado,” or excessively adorned, pointing out a lack of rhythm, proportion, and pattern in the use of generic classical ornamentation, while some neighbors described migrant homes as distinctly modern. Whatever their stylistic attribute, the homes, as defined by artist Walterio Iraheta, are autorretratos—or self-portraits—of their makers. They are a material transformation of the built environment directly linked to the interior world of the self. But the remittance house is not primarily an opportunity for migrants’ personal expressions; it is the material manifestation of the specific political and social conditions under which contemporary social mobility and immobility for migrants takes place. Structural inequality, an absence of access to legal documentation in the U.S., and diminishing opportunities for economic and social mobility in the U.S. and Mexico have produced the spaces in which the remittance house becomes a viable, albeit imperfect, option. To understand these newly constructed homes as imperfect is to ask about the costs and consequences of binational building from below, building a dream home in one place while living and working in another. In order to remit, nuclear families are often separated or fragmented across geographies. For example, mothers and daughters live in a remittance house in Mexico, while fathers and sons work in and send money from the U.S. Meanwhile, elderly parents live in a home built with dollars on a street mostly abandoned or empty due to what neighbors refer to as “the floating population” abroad. Families split by gender or generation incur social and psychological costs as bodies are replaced by dollars, and living at a distance from one’s immediate family is normalized. The project of building a remittance house—of attempting to secure and invest in a future for one’s family—is also susceptible to the complexities of living life as a migrant in the U.S. Both documented and undocumented migrants might lose their jobs, build new relationships in the U.S. while attempting to maintain marriages or relationships in Mexico, become responsible for their ill parents in Mexico, or become ill themselves. Undocumented migrants are especially vulnerable as they live under the terror of apprehension, incarceration, and deportation, and are generally unable to return home without incurring great risk. For any number of reasons, homes may be incomplete or abandoned altogether. Ultimately, the remittance house teaches non-migrants important lessons. They are evidence of migrants’ strengths, the discipline required to achieve personal goals. They are evidence of complex social patterns and costs for families fragmented by global capital, and for whom remitting has become a way of life. Scaling up, they are also evidence of the Mexican and U.S. governments’ unwillingness to enact binational protections and opportunities for a flexible and exploited labor force that the U.S. economy has depended on for over 100 years. Understanding the remittance house in its messy complexity can cultivate the public’s awareness of the extended and complicated spaces that “migrants” are enmeshed in and co-constituting. If Mexican migrants in the U.S. were collectively supported, the term “remittance house” would become obsolete. With the capacity to choose where to live and work, and with the ability to travel, those who built homes in Mexico would join the millions of elite Americans and Mexicans who have second homes or vacation homes. For now, the remittance house captivates, and its meaning reverberates within Mexico and across the Rio Grande.
This article is the fourth in a series that originally appeared in AN's July/August 2018 issue which focuses exclusively on Texas and was guest edited by AGENCY. The rest of the essays will be released in the coming days and examine architecture and practice across the southern border of the United States. In the border metropolis of El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, the power relations of international negotiation are not only performed through the apparatus of control over the movement of bodies, but are also embodied in a concrete architecture that exposes the calculus of separation and asymmetrical infrastructural development between the two countries. In the borderland, the control of water—as territory, commodity, and reproductive agent—produces its physical spaces. While the shared waters of the river and the underground aquifers contribute to the reproductive capacity of land within the desert climate, the infrastructures of water supply and sanitation are material evidence of the socio-spatial injustices and imbalances that structure and reproduce social relations within the border cities. Negotiation The geopolitical history of the river as a border and of the partitioning of its waters is inscribed within the built environment as a thick constructed zone. The international border between the United States and Mexico was defined by the 1848 and 1884 Treaties, which delineated that the border follow the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo del Norte) from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico. This rendered the border an unstable condition, as its line needed to be redefined by the International Boundary Commission each time floods caused the river to relocate. A treaty in 1933 attempted to “fix” the river by engineering it into a constructed channel. However, this location left several hundred acres of disputed Mexican territory to the north of the river—the result of a violent change in course in 1864. The 1963 Chamizal Agreement relocated the river and the international boundary once again, moving the Rio Grande back to its 1852 survey location. In this highly publicized moment of international diplomacy, the disputed land was “returned” to Mexico, and a new channel was constructed to reroute the Rio Grande north so that both river and international border aligned. The division between the two countries was now emphasized, further asserted by the open lands of the former riverbed on the Juárez side and a new elevated border highway on the U.S. side of the channel. Management The colonization of the U.S. would not have been possible without the massive campaign of dam projects in the early 20th century that commodified the waters of the West and irrigated the farms and settlements of homesteaders. Four dams manage and distribute the Rio Grande waters in the El Paso-Juárez region: Elephant Butte, Caballo, American Diversion, and the International Diversion Dam. Water is distributed according to the 1944 Water Treaty, drawn up when the population of Juárez was less than one-tenth its current size. In 1965, the binational Border Industrialization Program enabled maquiladoras, foreign-owned manufacturing plants, to be located within Mexico’s border zones, and to move materials and products with reduced tariffs and trade barriers. This propelled an influx of new residents who arrived to work in the Juárez border zone maquilas. The treaty, which retains the majority of the river water in the U.S., has not been revised since and contains no provisions for sharing the rapidly depleting Mesilla and Hueco Bolson aquifer waters, which traverse the binational region underground. The division of the river water produces politically charged urban spaces. The U.S. Franklin Canal materializes as a physical barrier within the U.S. border zone, flowing deeply and rapidly in a concrete channel alongside the Rio Grande. In Juárez, the diverted water flows along the Acequia Madre, which takes a diagonal course, traversing some of the city’s main public spaces. This once green irrigation channel and common space is now largely neglected and has deteriorated into a toxic line of sewage and trash. Biopolitics Water is not only scarce in the desert city of Juárez—it is also dangerous. The paper worlds of politics materialize as realities on the ground and in the tissues of bodies. Due to the explosive population growth of Juárez, large portions of the city have been rapidly and often informally constructed, typically without proper municipal sewage or drinking water services. The residents of these informal settlements, known as colonias, rely primarily on truck-supplied water, which has a much higher likelihood of being contaminated and results in high rates of water-borne diseases. Only about a third of the city’s sewage is actually treated. Some colonias have additionally encroached on the city’s drainage gullies and arroyos, putting residents at further risk during flash flood events. In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly “explicitly recognized the right to clean drinking water and sanitation as essential to the realization of all human rights.” If this mandate is taken seriously by the binational region of El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, new treaties and agreements will need to be negotiated that address not only the scarcity and distribution of its shared waters, but also the shared responsibility of water rights to citizens on both sides of the border. What remains to be seen is not only what shape these take in terms of political agreements, but also how they will reshape the physical urban spaces of the paired cities.